One thing that I always appreciate in any survival-horror game is atmosphere. I’m sure I’ve talked about this before, but atmosphere is a crucial component in making things more immersive and spooky. I’m not talking about zombies or mutants chasing after you while you’re reloading shotgun ammo. Nor am I talking about some torture-porn scene where the player didn’t press the right button and mutilation ensues. I’m talking about a vibe that makes the player feel like they’re having one of the worst days of their life because the character they’re controlling is having one of the worst days of their life. That’s one area where Theresia delivers. As the protagonist, you won’t be running from fast moving monsters. You’ll find a gun to add to your seemingly endless inventory (more on that later) but you won’t be using it for anything other than solving a puzzle. Theresia’s atmosphere is enough to make up for the game’s problems.
Theresia’s narrative is divided into two parts. The first is Dear Emile. You play as a girl named Leanne that wakes up in an underground shelter by herself. She has no recollection of how she got there, and no memories of her past. The only thing that might connect her with the outside world and her past is a pendant covered in sharp needles. Leanne’s situation is grim. The same can be said for the protagonist in the second part: Dear Martel. In order to unlock this arc, you’ll have to finish all of Dear Emile. The Dear Martel story has you following a doctor that has to atone. Once in charge of a humble orphanage, the doctor and his colleagues made terrible mistakes that impacted the lives of the them and the children under their care. Dear Martel happens before Dear Emile. Both narratives are not for the squeamish. There is plenty of bloodshed, but also themes of child abuse, torture, bioterrorism, and abuse of military power. Both protagonists piece the narrative together as they uncover journals and documents.
Said journals and documents are another great feature of Theresia: the labyrinth. The entire game takes place in this massive, underground structure. In some ways, the labyrinth is a character in this twisted tale. The locations are varied; each one with its own twisted purposed and history. They’re also filled with traps, and lots of them. There might not be any monsters or terrors out for your blood, but your character still has a life bar and can take damage. Healing items are finite, too. To handle this, it’s important to take your time when exploring your surroundings. Theresia has a classic, point-and-click interface in which you can examine your surroundings with your eyes and your hands. Taking the time to look before you leap is critical. Doing so not only prevents traps from activating, but also lets you gather key items used for solving puzzles.
And man, there are a lot of items. It’s kind of ridiculous that your character that is (likely) not wearing much of anything has the capacity to store so many items. I tried not to think about it too much since Theresia is a video game but, seriously. How do they comfortably store a hammer, a crossbow, flasks, army gear, and a whole bunch of other things? Either way, you’ll be up to your eyeballs in inventory because you need to use the right tools at the right time to solve puzzles. Often times you’ll have to combine items together. Some of these puzzles are relatively straightforward. Others take some more thinking. There’s a nice sense of accomplishment that comes with solving them. The downside do them is that the solutions, as well as simply figuring out where to go next to advance the narrative, can be obscure. I had to have a guide handy when I played because there were so many times I had zero clue on what to do next.
It doesn’t help matters that moving through the labyrinth is a slow process. If you think of an old-school dungeon crawler like Wizardry, then you have some idea of what to expect as you navigate the hallowed corridors. I would sigh with annoyance when I had to backtrack through a certain area in case I forgot to grab something important. In fact, the main reason why my playtimes were so high was because I would learn that I missed something and end up backtracking. A quicker movement speed would have really helped. Otherwise, Theresia’s gameplay is simple but effective. It’s especially exciting when you enter a new room/area for the first time. The anticipation of new, horrific revelations never goes away.
This brings me to the presentation. The music is ominous. The sounds are terrifying. The varied rooms and hallways are filled with their own horrors. When the screen flashes and a trap activates, it’s very unsettling. Droplets of blood add to the impact. Even the text that gets displayed has its own sense of terror since sometimes red font is used to convey something scary. A bipolar aspect of the presentation are the still images used during certain scenes. They’re a neat mixture of black and white, sepia and color. But, the character art is very – and I am in no way using this as a pejorative term – anime. I feel like more realistic character designs would have driven these story scenes home. Otherwise, this is a great looking game that fully utilizes the capabilities of the two screens on the DS.
It took me a little over 10 hours to finish Dear Emile. Dear Martel’s exploration and format is the same, so it’ll likely add another 10 to 15 hours to the total playtime. That said, my copy of Theresia arrived used. The previous owner completed both Dear Emile and Dear Martel. As a result, the Diary feature was unlocked. This lets you read through the tales without having to navigate the maze. Both stories are worth experiencing in some way. It’s just important to point out that you have to deal with a lot of spelunking to get the most out of Theresia. Still, fans of anything related to horror will endure the flaws. This is a one of a kind adventure on the DS worth experiencing.
Overall, 7.5/10: Theresia has issues, but the story and atmosphere make up for them. Your patience will be rewarded with one of the most haunting tales ever told.